Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 5: The Utility of Interpretations Segment 2/11
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As we see from these and many other examples, a solicitous concern for democracy and human rights may go hand in hand with tolerance for large-scale slaughter, or direct participation in it. The Christian Science Monitor observed approvingly -- and accurately -- that after General Suharto's impressive achievement in eliminating the political threat in Indonesia by mass murder, "many in the West were keen to cultivate Jakarta's new moderate leader, Suharto"; here the term "moderate" is used with an appropriate casuistic interpretation. Suharto's subsequent achievements include extraordinary human rights violations at home and slaughter in the course of aggression in East Timor that bears comparison to Pol Pot in the same years, backed enthusiastically by the United States, with the effective support of Canada, Britain, France, and other guardians of morality. The media cooperated by simply eliminating the issue; New York Times coverage, for example, declined as atrocities increased along with U.S. participation, reaching zero as the atrocities peaked in 1978; and the few comments by its noted Southeast Asia correspondent Henry Kamm assured us, on the authority of the Indonesian generals, that the army was protecting the people fleeing from the control of the guerrillas. Scrupulously excluded was the testimony of refugees, Church officials, and others who might have interfered with public acquiescence in what appears to be the largest massacre, relative to the population, since the Holocaust. In retrospect, the London Economist, in an ode to Indonesia under General Suharto's rule, describes him as "at heart benign," referring, perhaps, to his kindness to international corporations.11

In accord with the same principles, it is natural that vast outrage should be evoked by the terror of the Pol Pot regime, while reporters in Phnom Penh in 1973, when the U.S. bombing of populated areas of rural Cambodia had reached its peak, should ignore the testimony of the hundreds of thousands of refugees before their eyes.12 Such selective perception guarantees that little is known about the scale and character of these U.S. atrocities, though enough to indicate that they may have been comparable to those attributable to the Khmer Rouge at the time when the chorus of indignation swept the West in 1977, and that they contributed significantly to the rise, and probably the brutality, of the Khmer Rouge.13

These achievements of "historical engineering" allow the editors of the New York Times to observe that "when America's eyes turned away from Indochina in 1975, Cambodia's misery had just begun," with "the infamous barbarities of the Khmer Rouge, then dreary occupation by Vietnam" (incidentally, expelling the Khmer Rouge). "After long indifference," they continue, "Washington can [now] play an important role as honest broker" and "heal a long-ignored wound in Cambodia." The misery began in 1975, not before, under "America's eyes," and the editors do not remind us that during the period of "indifference" Washington offered indirect support to the Khmer Rouge while backing the coalition in which it was the major element because of its "continuity" with the Pol Pot regime.14

U.S. relations with the Khmer Rouge require some careful maneuvering. The Khmer Rouge were, and remain, utterly evil insofar as they can be associated with the Communist threat, perhaps because of their origins in Jean-Paul Sartre's left-wing Paris circles. Even more evil, evidently, are the Vietnamese, who finally reacted to brutal and murderous border incidents by invading Cambodia and driving out the Khmer Rouge, terminating their slaughters. We therefore must back our Thai and Chinese allies who support Pol Pot. All of this requires commentators to step warily. The New York Times reports the "reluctance in Washington to push too hard" to pressure China to end its support for Pol Pot -- with the goal of bleeding Vietnam, as our Chinese allies have forthrightly explained. The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs rejected a congressional plea to call for a cutoff of aid to Pol Pot because the situation was "delicate." U.S. pressure on China "might irritate relations unnecessarily," the Times explained, and this consideration overcomes our passionate concern over the fate of Cambodians exposed to Khmer Rouge terror. The press explains further that while naturally the United States is "one of the nations most concerned about a Khmer Rouge return," nevertheless "the US and its allies have decided that without some sign of compromise by Vietnam toward a political settlement [on U.S. terms], the Khmer Rouge forces must be allowed to serve as military pressure on Vietnam, despite their past" -- and despite what the population may think about "a Khmer Rouge return." Not only relations with China, but also the tasks of propagandists are "delicate" under these demanding conditions.15

An appropriate casuistic interpretation of the concept of democracy solves only half the problem; we also need a phrase for the enemies of democracy in some country where we yearn to establish or maintain it. The reflex device is to label the indigenous enemy "Communists," whatever their social commitments and political allegiances may be. They must be eliminated in favor of the "democrats" who are not "out of control." José Napoleón Duarte and his Defense Minister Vides Casanova are therefore "democrats," defending civilization against "Communists," such as the hundreds murdered by the security forces as they tried to flee to Honduras across the Rio Sumpul in May 1980. They were all "Communist guerrillas," Duarte explained, including, presumably, the infants sliced to pieces with machetes; the U.S. media took the simpler path of suppressing the massacre, one of the opening shots in the terrorist campaign for which Duarte provided legitimacy, to much acclaim.16

The U.S. attitude towards "American-style" democracies illustrates the prevailing conception in more subtle ways. Europe and Japan provide interesting examples, particularly in the early postwar years when it was necessary to restore traditional elites to power and undermine the anti-fascist resistance and its supporters, many of them imbued with unacceptable radical democratic commitments.17

The Third World provides a few similar illustrations, standing alongside the many cases where people with the wrong ideas are controlled by violence or liquidated "without suppressing democracy." Consider Costa Rica, the one functioning parliamentary democracy in Central America through the post-World War II period. It is sometimes argued, even by scholars who should know better, that U.S. support for Costa Rica undermines the thesis that a primary policy goal is to bar "nationalistic regimes" that do not adequately guarantee the rights of business,18 a thesis well supported by the documentary and historical records. This argument reflects a serious misunderstanding. The United States has no principled opposition to democratic forms, as long as the climate for business operations is preserved. As accurately observed by Gordon Connell-Smith in his study of the inter-American system for the Royal Institute of International Affairs,19 the U.S. "concept of democracy" is "closely identified with private, capitalistic enterprise," and it is only when this is threatened by what is regularly called "Communism" that action is taken to "restore democracy"; the "United States concern for representative democracy in Latin America [as elsewhere] is a facet of her anti-communist policy," or more accurately, the policy of opposing any threat to U.S. economic penetration and political control. And when these interests are safeguarded, democratic forms are not only tolerated, but approved, if only for public relations reasons. Costa Rica fits the model closely, and provides interesting insight into the "yearning for democracy" that is alleged to guide U.S. foreign policy.

In Costa Rica the system established under the leadership of José (Don Pepe) Figueres after the 1948 coup remains in place. It has always provided a warm welcome to foreign investment and has promoted a form of class collaboration that often "sacrificed the rights of labor," Don Pepe's biographer observes,20 while establishing a welfare system that continues to function thanks to U.S. subsidies, with one of the highest per capita debts in the world. Don Pepe's 1949 constitution outlawed Communism. With the most militant unions suppressed, labor rights declined. "Minimum wage laws were not enforced," and workers "lost every collective-bargaining contract except one that covered a single group of banana workers," Walter LaFeber notes. By the 1960s "it was almost as if the entire labor movement had ceased to exist," an academic study concludes. The United Fruit Company prospered, nearly tripling its profits and facing no threat of expropriation. Meanwhile, Figueres declared in 1953 that "we consider the United States as the standard-bearer of our cause."21 As the United States tried to line up Latin American states behind its planned overthrow of the Guatemalan government, Costa Rica and Bolivia were the only two elected governments to join the Latin American dictatorships in giving full support to the State Department draft resolution authorizing the United States to violate international law by detaining and inspecting "vessels, aircraft and other means of conveyance moving to and from the Republic of Guatemala" so as to block arms shipments for defense of Guatemala from the impending U.S. attack and "travel by agents of International Communism."22

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11 John Murray Brown, CSM, Feb. 6, 1987; Economist, Aug. 15, 1987. On media coverage of East Timor, see Political Economy of Human Rights, Towards a New Cold War, and The Chomsky Reader, the latter including some discussion of the remarkable subsequent apologetics by Western journalists. There is a great deal to add about later efforts to cover up this dismal record, but I will not pursue it here. Though at a lesser scale, the terror and repression continue, with little notice.

12 For a record, see Manufacturing Consent, chapter 6. The U.S. bombings of rural Laos shortly before were also suppressed during the worst period; ibid., and sources cited.

13 Ibid., and sources cited; Ben Kiernan, "The American Bombardment of Kampuchea," Vietnam Generation 1.1, Winter 1989.

14 Editorial, NYT, July 16, 1988. On the U.S. role during the period of "indifference," see Manufacturing Consent, chapter 6.

15 Elaine Sciolino, NYT, Oct. 16; Clayton Jones, CSM, Aug. 24, 1988. On what he properly calls the "hypocrisy" of the West on this issue, see Peter Carey, Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec. 22, 1988. He points out that thanks to "generous supplies of Chinese arms and money" and "Western food aid" sent via the U.N., "the Khmer Rouge has become a formidable fighting force," well established in parts of Cambodia. Thai military authorities play a crucial role in allowing Khmer Rouge bases and "terror enclaves" to operate within Thailand. Much of the fighting has been between the Khmer Rouge and its non-Communist coalition partners that the U.S. claims to support, one of which (Son Sann's KPNLF) has been "almost eliminated" and the other (Sihanouk's army) "badly mauled." With the aid of the Thai and Chinese allies of the United States, the Khmer Rouge may be able to take over after the Vietnamese withdrawal that is the alleged goal of U.S. policy. These developments have been clear enough for several years. See Manufacturing Consent for earlier references.

16 For references, see Turning the Tide, chapter 3, section 5.2.

17 See my article "Democracy in the Industrial Societies," Z Magazine, January 1989.

18 See Victor Bulmer-Thomas, review of On Power and Ideology, Third World Quarterly, January 1988.

19 Connell-Smith, The Inter-American System (Oxford, 1966).

20 Charles Ameringer, Don Pepe (U. of New Mexico, 1978, 114).

21 LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions (Norton 1983, 187, 105); Charles F. Denton and Preston Lee Lawrence, Latin American Politics: a Functional Approach (San Francisco, 1972), quoted by LaFeber; Ameringer, op. cit., 105.

22 FRUS, 1952-54, vol. IV, 1170, notes of meeting of Guatemala group, at State Dept., June 16, 1954; See pp. 1157f. for the text of the resolution. Guatemala would, it was hoped, be compelled to turn to the Soviet bloc for arms, other sources having been barred by the United States. As explained by Guatemala City embassy officer John Hill, stopping ships in international waters might "disrupt Guatemala's economy." This would in turn "encourage the Army or some other non-Communist elements to seize power," or else "the Communists will exploit the situation to extend their control," which would "justify the American community, or if they won't go along, the U.S. to take strong measures" (Bryce Wood, The Dismantling of the Good Neighbor Policy (Texas, 1985, 177).) We thus compel Guatemala to defend itself from our threatened attack, thereby creating a threat to our security which we exploit by destroying the Guatemalan economy so as to provoke a military coup or an actual Communist takeover which will justify our violent response, in self-defense. Here we see the real meaning of the phrase "security threat," spelled out with much insight.